When people living in the Alaska Native community of Buckland, population 425, visit the local Native store, they may see price tags of $46 attached to laundry soap and $26 for a quart of oil. When they hit the gas pump, they can expect to spend around $8 on each gallon. When everyday items like this cost so much, it’s no wonder reducing expenses is a priority for Buckland and the surrounding villages in the Northwest Arctic region of Alaska.
Sonny Adams, the Energy Program Manager for NANA Regional Corporation—a for-profit corporation that serves 11 villages and more than 7,500 people to manage the surface and subsurface rights of approximately 2.2 million acres of land in Northwest Alaska called the NANA Region—said living in this region is four times more expensive than living in Anchorage.
“For some of these villages, we have to fly in diesel fuel, and that automatically adds $2 per gallon,” he added.
One way to reduce or at least stabilize expenses is to cut diesel fuel costs by tapping into renewable resources for energy production—and with help from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Indian Energy, the villages of Kotzebue, Buckland, and Deering are installing solar photovoltaic (PV) systems to achieve such savings.
The roughly $2-million project, $1 million of which comes from a 2016 DOE grant, involves installing over 400 kilowatts (kW) of PV arrays in these villages, which are expected to produce about 420,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually, displacing over 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
The system in Buckland is now operational, and Adams said NANA Corporation is already collecting data on its energy production. During the fall of 2018, at one point in time soon after the solar arrays were online, 38% of the village’s energy came from renewable energy, which included the three PV arrays and existing wind turbines that have already been installed. In the winter, when daylight is significantly reduced, the village relies much more heavily on diesel power—but with the addition of battery storage, which has already been purchased and is scheduled for commissioning in April or May of 2019, Buckland is hoping to come off of diesel entirely for several hours at a time during the summer months.
The containerized solar system was provided by BoxPower Inc., a California energy company specializing in rapidly deployable solar and battery systems for rural energy projects and disaster relief. BoxPower Inc. is a participant in the Launch Alaska business accelerator, which introduces innovative infrastructure companies to the Alaskan market, as was demonstrated in Buckland.
“We’re working with the community on how to set the utility rates,” Adams said. “We started with these villages because they own their own utilities, so they were the path of least resistance. The others in the region have co-ops, so it’s not as easy.”
Adams said the project team will be able to apply many lessons learned from the Buckland installation for the Deering and Kotzebue installations, also funded through the DOE’s solar deployment grant. In total, the DOE grant will help in the three communities with a combined population of about 3,800.
“Kotzebue has one of the largest wind farms in the state, and they have a large battery that’s been operational for two years now,” Adams said. “They’re working on the financing for their solar project. They’re watching closely what we’re doing in Buckland.”
While cost reduction is an obvious driver for these renewable energy projects, these technologies bring more than just a lower energy bill to these villages’ residents. Exposure to energy technologies is educational, and the projects themselves create jobs. In fact, one of the stated goals of the NANA project is to develop clean energy job skills and expertise among residents in the three communities. This project, when combined with the wind and battery initiatives in all three communities, expects to create approximately 10 full-time temporary employee positions and an additional full-time position to last the entire life of the equipment—25 years.
“The most important thing is building capacity amongst the community of Buckland,” Adams said. “People have learned how to build a solar array, and we’re getting the youth engaged. We want them to take ownership. As we go through the region starting to discuss renewables, people are interested. They’re starting to see what’s happening in Buckland. It’s sparking their interest to move in different directions.”
NANA Corporation is required to meet with the region’s villages regularly. So far, Adams said, the villages are saying they’d like to see more renewable energy training and workforce development, but they are also cautious of potential impacts on traditional activities such as subsistence. Adams said the next step is educating residents on energy-efficiency opportunities beyond the PV project.
“If we update our appliances and do more to cut back on electricity, there is a real opportunity to save some money,” he said. “We’re also looking at installing heat pumps to heat homes rather than using diesel. We’re doing a heat pump study within the region, looking at where this is going to work within the villages.”
Adams said regionalizing costs and researching much-needed roads and interties among the communities have also been hot topics. Right now, he said NANA Corporation is working on a new grant to explore creating a renewable energy authority, which could bring cost reductions in different ways.
“Can we do bulk fuel purchasing and energy project bundling?” Adams said. “An energy company may not be interested in financing one village, but if you get four or five saying we all want solar, they might be interested. We’re trying to figure out what we can regionalize. Can we come up with financing for interconnection? Can we finance tribal-owned utilities? How would we do that? Some people want to produce their own power and create their own jobs.”
Learn more about the NANA Regional Corporation project.